X-Ray Specs: Act I – Arguing for a Disempowered Protagonist and Sadistic Fate

Push and pull—strength and submission—who has “the power” when your story begins? It shouldn’t be your protagonist! At least, not for long…

Often a story begins with the protagonist falling or having already fallen victim to Powers Beyond His or Her Control (call it Fate, if you will). In fact, stories can only begin when status quo of the protagonist’s life has been disrupted in some significant way—that means, a power shift has occurred, and your protagonist has wound up with the foul-end of the stick. Let the drama begin!

Ed Norton

Ed Norton

This power shift can happen one of two ways: either the protagonist decides through his or her own will to make a radical change, or someone/something decides to make the change for him or her. Usually it’s the latter: the worse for the protagonist, the better for the audience—the quicker we can empathize with the protagonist.

We vest in other people’s misfortune: it’s human nature. It’s the nature of why and how storytelling works. That old “save the cat” technique for eliciting the audience’s favor for the protagonist in the first five pages is well and good—but how about “kill the cat”. Your protagonist Leonard’s cat just died. And Mittens was Leonard’s only friend in the whole world… Now what? (It’s either the start of a bittersweet indie rom-com or a Hitchcockian thriller.) Leonard has lost his power to be happy, now that Mittens has dearly departed this too-cruel world. The Fates are ultimately merciless to all of us, aren’t they?

Let’s take Fight Club: Narrator (Edward Norton) begins his story suffering from severe insomnia. His affliction drastically hinders his ability to perform in his life: his affliction has consumed him. Narrator lacks the power to sleep—a basic human need, and therefore, sufficient grounds for action to need to be taken. What does Narrator decide to do? He’s tried the doctor—the doctor won’t even prescribe him sleeping pills!

Now that your protagonist finds his power compromised, what he chooses to do next—how he decides to address that compromise in power—will largely determine the shape of the story (and certainly Act II). In this sense, a story is—at its most elemental—an attempt by your protagonist to regain power over his life: what decisions does she make to further that return-to-power (in mythic terms, to “get back home”)? You’ll find that the weirder, more unexpected, more unconventional the Act I decision the protagonist makes to solve his powerlessness, the more interesting the story immediately becomes.

What does Fight Club’s Narrrator decide to do? Attend self-help groups. All of them. Any of them. Narrator discovers that if he weeps, he can sleep. Problem solved, right? Complication: Narrator cannot cry if there’s “another faker” in the self-help group. Her name is Marla. And things get weirder from there (because it’s Palahniuk, weird is sort of mandatory.) However, what’s genius is that by the time screenwriter Jim Uhls introduces the “Fight Club” concept at the end of Act I, it’s just the next logical step extended from Narrator’s initial decision to attend to self-help groups so he can weep so he can sleep. We accept “Fight Club”, outlandish a plot device as it is, very easily by then.

But let’s get back to you. Perhaps you’ve heard before that your spec’s protagonist is “too reactive”. Don’t despair! This means you’ve got a good amount of others having power in the story, but your protagonist is not making enough active decisions to rectify that power imbalance.

On the other hand, maybe you’ve heard before that your protagonist is “too in control”. Don’t despair! This just means your protagonist is making too many active decisions to rectify the power imbalance, and your antagonist (Powers Beyond His or Her Control) needs to have more successes that thwart or send askew your protagonist’s plans.

For instance, as thoroughly “powerful” (resilient, resourceful, creative) as James Bond is, the best Bond films feature a stronger, smarter antagonist. Most recently, Skyfall unleashed a fantastically effective villain (Javier Bardem) every bit Bond’s equal and even Bond’s superior in a few arenas.

In House of Cards “Chapter 1”, Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) fully expects to be appointed by the newly elected President to Secretary of State….yet Francis is, much to his surprise, passed over. Francis finds his power—how important he thought he was—compromised, and chooses to initiate a series of shadowy actions to restore his political favor and standing with the President. This series of actions (Shakespearian schemes, really) play out and bear fruit over the course of the entire first season. It’s brilliant. It starts with a powerful guy cut down a peg or two—there is no show if Francis gets what he wants. He has to work for it.

When constructing an Act I decision-point for your protagonist, all the better if the decision-point can also be a moral dilemma. We’ll see something about your character’s heart/personality/value system by whether he chooses Self or the Other. Put under pressure, we’ll see from what she’s really made.

In The Americans “Pilot”, the first sequence culminates in the husband and wife spies arguing whether to take their seriously wounded cohort to hospital, or take their hostage to the drop-off point (a large ship that will be leaving port at a certain, unstoppable time). Husband values (their cohort’s) life over the job, while Wife values the job (her country, Mother Russia) over (anyone’s) life. Husband wins out; they detour to drop off the bloody mess of a schlep at hospital, but don’t arrive in time to deliver their hostage and literally “miss the boat”. The rest of the episode deals with the ramifications of their missing out on delivering their hostage to their bosses back in Mother Russia… And that other spy? The one the husband sacrificed the mission to save his life? He died later that night from his wound.

The Fates are really, truly, so merciless, aren’t they? That’s good for you, if you know that. And good for your audience, if you start your story this way.

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One thought on “X-Ray Specs: Act I – Arguing for a Disempowered Protagonist and Sadistic Fate

  1. Patrick Mahon

    Great article, Robert. Find it helpful that you frame the first act in terms of ‘forces/events outside the protagonist’s control’ and the active choice the protagonist makes to counteract this as setting up the whole story. I can see that clearly now. Very helpful.

    Also, a negative event can certainly make us identify with a character, right? As long as there isn’t too much self pity afterwards to turn us off. Unless maybe it’s a comedy. I’m thinking KINGPIN…

    I think I remember Snyder talking about ‘kill the cat’ in his second book as the inverse of the positive beat, just as you have suggested. Think his example was in reference to Legally Blonde and Witherspoon getting dumped by her fiancee. And this made us see past her plastic exterior and feel for her.

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